For 104 years, the bell at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in hilly, blue-collar Manayunk has joyfully summoned the faithful to prayer, celebrated marriages, and marked the ends of wars.

Now, in a city whose many sacred symbols include a cracked bell, someone has filed a complaint to silence St. John's 5,000-pound bronze casting.

Not completely. Just in the morning. At 7. That's when it rings 18 times for the Angelus.

The official reason: It's too loud.

The Rev. James A. Lyons, pastor of St. John's, received a warning letter last week from the city Health Department.

The missive threatened the 179-year-old church with fines of up to $700 per day if the pealing bell is found to violate the city's 2006 noise law.

"Air Management Services (AMS) has received citizen's complaints of loud amplified sounds from the above premises every day at 7 a.m. AMS would like to advise you that amplified sound and all other noise . . . shall not exceed five decibels above background level measured at the property boundary of the nearest occupied residential property," states the letter, signed by Roger M. Fey, the city's enforcement officer for air and noise pollution.

Earlier this year, the church's business manager received an anonymous phone call from a woman who said she lived a block from St. John's.

"I will never forget this," said Rosemary Swider, who has worked at the church for 16 years and took the call. "She said the bell was disrupting her quality of life."

The church has stood in Gothic splendor on Rector Street since 1856. The parish originally ministered to the neighborhood's Irish Catholics. It now serves 1,900 families. About a block away, restaurants, bars, and boutiques have sprouted along Main Street, transforming the working-class community into a destination for college students and young professionals.

A clock tower - with the bell - was erected at the church in 1906, long before the city passed a noise ordinance. The church, mindful of neighborhood needs, has, over the last half-century, cut back the number of times the bell tolls.

Until the 1960s, the bell struck every half-hour and all through the night. When Lyons arrived in 1994, he restricted the bell's operating hours, shutting it off at 9 p.m.

The bell has always sounded the Catholic call to prayer known as the Angelus. Traditionally, the Angelus bells sound 18 times at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.

Several years ago, Lyons delayed the first Angelus to 7. "We wanted to do the neighborly thing," he said, "and give everybody a rest."

In 2007, a broken sprocket stopped the clock and quieted the chimes, which had measured the lives of generations of workers in Manayunk's now-shuttered yarn mills and diaper factories.

It remained silent until last year, when two elderly sisters donated $20,000 to fix its works. According to the company that repaired the clock, the sound did not become any louder. The bell began to toll again in January. Every hour on the hour - 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. - and the Angelus at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.

Soon after the repair, the anonymous call came to the church. No one had ever complained about the sound of the bell before, said Swider, the business manager. Swider and Lyons later heard rumors that two members of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council (MNC) were circulating a petition to silence it.

The president of the group, Kevin Smith, said the council had no position on the bell.

"Our only knowledge of the alleged complaint comes from accusations, leveled at MNC by church members, that we were somehow involved," he said.

Tom Hay, who lives up the hill in Roxborough, is convinced the complaint was filed by a recent transplant.

"The issue seems to symbolize the battle between old and new Manayunk," said Hay, a frequent commentator on the Facebook page "Save the Bells of St. John the Baptist in Manayunk." "Old-timers have seen the town taken away in pieces. This is just the icing on the cake."

Cory Peters, 21, a business student at the University of Pennsylvania, lives three blocks from the church. He concedes that the bell bothers him. "Honestly, the 7 a.m. bell gets on my nerves once in a while," he said. "Why can't they have the bell ring only once a day, at noon?"

The city became involved after receiving a citizen complaint. By early summer, four other churches near St. John's had expressed their solidarity by sounding their bells together on July Fourth. One of those churches, St. Josaphat, had already turned down the volume on its recorded carillon after receiving a complaint, according to Lyons.

Not all noise is prohibited in the early morning.

Aircraft, trains, and fireworks displays are exempt from the ordinance. The law also makes allowances for animal noises coming from zoos, veterinary hospitals, animal shelters, circuses, and schools.

But the ordinance does not mention churches, other than to protect houses of worship from sound that might disrupt services.

The warning letter sent to St. John's is not the first sent to a religious institution, said Thomas Huynh, director of the city's Air Management Services, responsible for enforcing noise and air pollution laws.

"We have sent out many over the years to many different faiths," Huynh said. "Most are willing to make accommodations in response to neighbors' complaints."

Lyons said he did not think turning the volume down on the bell was an option.

"A bell's a bell," he said. "It either rings or it doesn't."

However, Jim Verdin of the Verdin Bell Co., which repaired St. John's clock, said the bell "could be carved out" to reduce the volume. "It's no big deal."

Huynh said his agency has levied fines and filed charges when churches have refused to cooperate, but he could not recall a specific case.

The city will begin a formal investigation if it receives another complaint about the St. John's bell.

Despite the risk of legal consequences, neighbors and parishioners of St. John's said the bell should continue to ring.

"No one's ever complained before," said Speedy Morris, head basketball coach at St. Joseph's Preparatory School and a lifelong parishioner at St. John's. "With people leaving the bars and urinating on the streets, anyone complaining about church bells is ludicrous."

And Father Lyons?

"Unless the city or the archdiocese tells us we can't, they are going to keep ringing."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood
at 215-854-2796 or
Inquirer staff writer Michael Brocker contributed to this article.